Right to Left: a transcript of my Lean Agile Brighton talk

Friday was Lean Agile Brighton, a chance to catch up with friends in the community after the 3-day Brighton workshop with Karl. Here, from memory, is a rough transcript of my talk, the last one of the day (giving me the opportunity to refer back to other speakers), and just 20 minutes long. I don’t often do talks this short, but it was fun! 

PS Over the weekend, I knocked up a cover for Right to Left (the book). It’s in the first slide below, also at agendashift.com/right-to-left, where you’ll find an overview.


Like Sal [Freudenberg, @SalFreudenberg, the previous speaker] I’m getting all misty-eyed about coming back to Brighton. My wife’s a Brighton girl, and my first job out of uni was in Lancing, just just down the road from here. My wife’s first boss later became mine (though not at the same time), and he’s in the audience today. Hi Peter! Thirty years!

Another reason to be excited: so many collaborators and influencers here: Karl [Karl Scotland, @kjscotland, one of the conference organisers] Steven [Steven Mackenzie, @busywait], and Liz [Liz Keogh, @lunivore] to name just three.

And I get to meet Caitlin [Caitlin Walker, @caitlinwalkerTA, opening keynote speaker] face to face at last! Her book [From Contempt to Curiosity] was quite an influence on the Agendashift book.

As I talk with colleagues and as I write my third book [see agendashift.com/books and agendashift.com/right-to-left], I detect a convergence: things happening in the Agile world that have long frustrated us but were hard to pin down we now have names for. And that’s good – instead of just complaining, we can begin to find solutions! Look out for couple of those in my talk today.


Who here is a Lego fan?

Wow, that’s a lot of hands!


If you had to describe Lego, where would you start? On the left with truckloads of plastic granules arriving at the Lego factory, or with children playing with the finished product? Plastic feedstock, or children playing? From the left, or from the right?

From the right of course.


Let’s try that with Agile. Where would you start? On the left with backlog items in Jira* (*other tracking tools are available), or on the right with people collaborating over working software that’s already beginning to meet needs? Backlog items in Jira, or people collaborating over working software. Left or right?

Yes, from the right again. You have to wonder though… How often do you hear Agile explained from the left, starting with backlogs, item sizing, and stuff? Rather too often. That’s a problem! It’s very easy to completely miss the point when you start from the wrong perspective.


We can do this with Scrum too. On the left we have the two levels of backlog, planning events, and so on. On the right: shared objectives pursued goal by goal.

Here we have two very different descriptions of Scrum, yet both of them entirely compatible with the Scrum Guide. And there are two mindsets represented here. Which mindset is the one more likely to encourage self-organisation, engagement, and innovation? The one that thinks mainly from the left, or the one that thinks from the right?

Again right, no question. Why then do we mostly hear the “from the left” version? Why do goals seem to be treated as though they’re some kind of advanced concept?


Now to SAFe, and it’s almost identical: n levels of backlog (where n is a parameter determined by the height of your SAFe poster), planning events and so on (very much like Scrum), or shared objectives pursued goal by goal (the wording here is identical to the previous slide, and it’s 100% compatible with SAFe).

I ask again: Which mindset is the one more likely to encourage self-organisation, engagement, and innovation? The one where progress against plan is closely tracked by the PMO, or the one where teams are encouraged to self-organise around goals?

You’re with me: the one on the right.

I’m not a SAFe user myself, but friends of mine in the SAFe community whose opinions I respect tell me that this tension is already beginning to be acknowledged and discussed in the SAFe community. Some implementations are more one way than the other; sometimes different people on the same project take a different view. Awkward!


We’ve done Scrum and SAFe but I’m not quite finished with this pattern yet. Let’s try it with Agile adoption. What’s your kind:

  • Here on the left: Prescribe a solution (or have it sold to you), justify it (manufacturing an inauthentic sense of urgency), roll it out regardless of what people think, and deal with the consequences: the resentment, the cynicism, the disengagement (which is very hard to undo once it’s there), not to mention the realisation that much time has passed, the world has since moved on, and we’ve got to do it all over again! Maybe that sounds a bit like a caricature, but from the nods I’m seeing around the room, I know that this hits pretty close to home for some of you.
  • And here on the right: Agree on some outcomes (a process we’re well practiced now in facilitating), generate some options (based perhaps on expert advice, but perhaps you’re already capable of more than you initially realise), and start to test some assumptions. Who here has worked with Lean Startup? [A few hands go up]. At least somewhat familiar with it? [Several more]. You’ll know that the way we make progress is by relentlessly testing assumptions, and trying to do it in such a way that we often realise some business value in the process. It’s the main engine of progress in Lean Startup, and also a great model for change. Do that for a while and change becomes part of the day job, real work done by real people, not spare-time work, hobby work, or something to outsource.

So which is it? Left or right? I hardly need ask.

The brokenness of that left-to-right model is a serious issue. Here for example is Martin Fowler [@martinfowler], a signatory of the Agile Manifesto:


[See agendashift.com/engagement-model]

That’s quite recent, in a 2018 State of Agile Software keynote. But he’s been consistent about this over the years: teams must have choice in their process.


[Again: agendashift.com/engagement-model]

Let me highlight this term, Engagement Model. When Daniel Mezick used it in the foreword to my book, I knew right away it was an important term, one that I might perhaps have run with in the book if we weren’t just about to go to print! It’s something I also recognised in Caitlin’s work – in fact the way she deliberately went about discovering and iterating on her engagement model is one of her book’s main threads, even if the phrase itself isn’t there. Of course whether they’re explicit about it or not, every Agile supplier has some kind of engagement model; the question is whether their model does what Daniel’s definition seeks: promoting staff engagement rather than destroying it (creating the kind of disengagement we heard about earlier).

There is a third level to this engagement model thing, and it’s the focus of some of the excited conversations I’ve had with Liz and other collaborators like those I mentioned at the start. As I said, I think we’re converging on something. It’s about teams, as they transform, engaging constructively with their surrounding organisations, not saying “don’t bother us, we’re busy being Agile”. We want both sides to thrive! Hunkering down might make sense for a short while as teams are trying out radically new ways of doing things, but to normalise this attitude is a disaster! How is that going to encourage the organisation as a whole to develop? What we need – and it’s something that Liz said in her talk too – are collaborations and feedback loops that deliberately span organisational boundaries, and we have some great patterns for that. The opportunity is enormous – think just of the opportunities created by cross-boundary participation in strategy, for example.

We have only a few minutes left but I want to give you a taste of what an overtly right-to-left and outcome-oriented approach to change can look like. And based on what we’ve experienced over the course of the day, it’s going to feel surprisingly familiar.

We’ll start with this True North statement:


[See agendashift.com/true-north]

Let’s pause for a few moments pause to take that in.

You might remember “Working at your best” from Caitlin’s talk; in my book I give full credit to Caitlin for the inspiration.

Now, to get the conversation started, a question for your neighbour.


In pairs: What obstacles do you see in the way?

You’ll recognise question 2 – it was one of the Clean Language Language questions we heard in Caitlin’s keynote:


With your neighbour, and with respect to the obstacles you identified: What would you like to have happen?

We’re starting a process Caitlin described as “modelling a landscape”; here we’re modelling a particular kind of landscape, a landscape of obstacles and outcomes. We could dig into the obstacles, but instead we’re going to go deeper into outcome space – it turns out this is a much better use of our time (quick book plug: Solutions Focus):


In your pairs: Then what happens?

People sometimes say to me “Oh, this is the 5 Whys!”. In a way it is, but here we’re going forwards into outcome space, not backwards into obstacle space. But now that we’re on the subject, I have to tell the 5 Whys joke:

Q: Why are the 5 Whys called the 5 Whys
A: Because with the 6th Why you get a punch in the face

We could break a relentless line of questioning with a different choice of question, perhaps one of the questions Caitlin introduced to us this morning. But let’s risk it:


In your pairs: Then what happens?


[See agendashift.com/15-minute-foto]

What we’ve done here is a super-quick, stripped-down version of our Clean Language coaching game, 15-minute FOTO. We’ve open sourced it, so you can download everything you need to play the full version. We do it in table groups of around 4 people, and in just 15 minutes, each group can easily generate 15 or more outcomes. Across a few table groups it can generate loads – it’s really effective.


[See agendashift.com/overview]

In our workshops or as part of a longer engagement we actually use it twice: once as part of Discovery, to help explore our ambitions and aspirations, and for a second time in Exploration when we’re looking for the opportunities to take forward.


[See agendashift.com/done]

I’m done, at least in the sense that my 20 minutes are up. I hope that someone’s need was met. Thank you very much.

What if we put agreement on outcomes ahead of solutions?

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